Nov 30, 2006

Adrienne Rich on What Poetry Can Do

Adrienne Rich made a feeble, supremely vague, yet weirdly grandiose attempt at telling the world why poetry matters during the hardest of times in the Guardian (UK) last weekend. The short essay can be found here:,,1950812,00.html

After reading the piece I came away even less convinced that poetry matters much to living in a world of strife and troubles. Though Rich seems to have meant well, to be brave in showing the world that poetry can help us deal with such massive tribulations as genocide, she fails to make a sound case for poetry’s importance and offers not a single poem that could conceivably make any difference to genocide or to any currently serious, important, and collective issue in politics, society, or philosophy. Rather, near the end of her fogbound discussion, she wanders around to the suggestion that poetry is crucial to the development of a rich emotional life in men and women:

There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together -- and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses -- how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn't exist. But this only reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, "There is no alternative".

This is little more than blather, special pleading as vague as it is confused. Perhaps Rich, as Yvor Winters would have recommended, could have offered a telling example or two that would have helped us understand her. She should have given us a passage of “poetic language” or a whole poem that “quite literally” keeps “bodies and souls together,” since what those portentous phrases mean is just about nothing without a concrete example or two -- or a dozen -- to give them conceptual solidity. And she should have showed how poetic language can give us even “more,” since it’s impossible to guess what might constitute this “more” she’s talking about. She should have given us, too, a strong example of how poetry “imprints the life of the feelings” in some vitally important way that addresses an issue as daunting and colossal as genocide -- and perhaps an explanation of some kind for what she means by saying that poetry “imprints” feelings.

I’m just guessing (because one can do little more than guess about prose this nebulous) but what Rich seems to be saying is that the very best poetry can do when helping us through genocide and war and massive suffering is make us see the beauty or emotional resonance of the little details of our lives, as is shown in the appallingly vapid and trivial examples she gives of what poetry accomplishes: “how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger.” These are her examples of the best poetry can do in this world?!! Is this a summation of the best that can be said for poetry from one of modernity’s most decorated and applauded poets: that poetry shows us the beauty of little things. (To repeat, I’ll admit that I’m guessing that this is what she means, for she nowhere says what this affected drivel precisely signifies). This is pure Romanticism, friends, icky right to the bottom.

Rich’s examples of poetry’s best offerings to a world of woe reminds me of a widespread cliché found in many, many modern poems (to my mind, not a few of William Carlos Williams’s poems qualify) and of countless movies of all kinds -- especially so-called art films. To take one perhaps better known example that popped into my mind is from the film “American Beauty,” in which to show how magnificently sensitive the main character is, the film shows that character, a young drug dealer, showing his girlfriend the most brilliant piece of video he has taken in his short life: that of a colorful little garbage bag being blown about a sidewalk on a swirling wind. Now there’s a sight to meet the troubles of life -- something to get you through genocide! Have a friend dying miserably of cancer? Go out and watch a trash bag tumble on a breeze. Why wouldn’t watching a sewage spill spread in an alleyway work as well? That scene is the trite, icky equivalent of Rich’s “blur of smoke in the air.” Yet one more example -- there are hundreds of them -- I take from Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry,” an Iranian film: a man contemplating suicide is convinced not to do it by a fellow who reminds him of just that, the taste of cherries. Oh, please!

Rich pops in a little comment about imagination in the third quoted paragraph, but that doesn’t make sense or help in context, since all she appears to be saying is that you need imagination to see the beauty in shoes for sale or discarded garbage bags or the exquisite patterns sewage can make on the ground.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the sound of the rain and the look of many a shop window are nice and sweet. I do enjoy nice and sweet things, as most people do. But is the enjoyment of nice, sweet things what gives us strength or understanding to meet the great issues of life? Is this all poetry can do to aid us in finding the meaning of life and addressing the vast evils that confront us? Is this the most that poetry can say -- the best poetry can say?

Compare Rich’s puerile vision for poetry to what, say, Edgar Bowers accomplished in his great “The Virgin Mary,” from the Winters Canon, to see how truly great poetry can rise far beyond such foolish trivialities.

If Adrienne Rich in this piece says all that can be said for poetry, it’s probably inevitable and right that poetry plays no role in world affairs and has receded so far from public importance. Yet this belief that poetry at its best is the hyper-appreciation of details is spreading ever farther and wider in literary culture. It’s a cliché, my friends. Winters discussed this matter often, especially in his early writings, such as found in Primitivism and Decadence, in which he drew attention to the hyper-sensitivity to detail as a hallmark of the modern associationist writing style, which stems from Romanticism. Judging from Rich’s piece, it appears that those writing techniques are widely believed to be ALL that poetry can do in the face of the Big Issues: charmingly describe little things.

All this can make a Wintersian sigh with annoyance that so many writers think that all literature can give us in the face of the evil and suffering in modern times is a few winks of beauty or a swirl or two of sweet emotions. Of course, I think turning to Winters’s theory of literature is much more profitable, for poetry, for literature, for life. According to Winters, writers and poets make rational statements about human experiences and endeavor to conform the emotions properly to the rational understanding achieved. The proper adjustment of the emotions, unified with intellectual comprehension, is what separates poetry and fiction from prose discourse. We can only hope that more poets will take up the serious work that Winters believed poetry can do, as opposed to the insipid purposes poets like Adrienne Rich have for poetry.

Nov 22, 2006

Gratitude in the Winters Canon

In looking through the poems Yvor Winters judged to be the greatest (as collected in Quest for Reality [see]), I see that there are very few poems that have any concern with the concept or feeling of gratitude, which American minds turn to at this time of year -- and one that I feel can be important to human spiritual soundness and strength. In the Wintersian great poems, there is some cursory exploration and expressions of joy, a few explorations of love too (though they occur mostly by implication), but very little that we could construe as a quest for the reality or meaning of thanksgiving.

It has often happened in literature that writings on gratitude have veered toward the sentimental, an emotional response that “indulges the sensibilities for their own sake, are artificially or affectedly tender, or are addressed or pleasing to the emotions only, and usually to the weaker and the unregulated emotions [American Heritage],” which is a bearing of the emotions that Winters deplored. The only extended discussion of Winters’s -- that I am aware of -- on a poet who had a recurrent attitude of joy toward the natural world and human life is the piece on Robert Frost, found in The Function of Criticism. Winters chided Frost for the easy-going, folksy sentimentality found in many of his poems (though Winters called attention to Frost’s tougher work), as appealing as these sentiments often are to readers in our current literary culture. The poem that Winters thought to be Frost’s best was “The Most of It” (though he didn’t consider it good enough to rate as one of the great poems, I hasten to add), which happens to make very few best-of lists among the typical Frost aficionados, critics, and biographers. (I have appended the poem at the bottom of this entry for convenience. It’s worth noting that John Fraser included this poem in his New Book of Verse, implying, as it seems, that the poem is exceptionally good and closely in keeping with Winters’s theories of literary excellence, a matter which I will get to some time soon.) In that poem, said Winters, Frost faced “his predicament,” which I take to mean that Frost faced up to the fact that the nature he had, at times, unjustly expansive feelings toward, sentimental feelings that is, was not Frost’s “friend” or ours. Winters wrote often of the ravishing beauties of nature and its endearing qualities and all that, but he often noted ominously that nature will turn on us in the end and cast us and all we care about, through death, into utter oblivion. In much of his oeuvre, on the contrary, Frost cultivated what Winters considered a sentimental attitude toward nature; and from time to time, he expressed or strongly implied feelings of gratitude that he was alive and able to enjoy and perceive nature. Winters had little regard for any of this without the qualifying, bracing recognition that death looms behind all nature’s offerings and rewards.

This was Winters typical stance toward the natural world, toward the universe that he loved so passionately, as his poems imply. Winters seems to have experienced joy in being alive and conscious. He even wrote poems about his thirst for complete and utter immersion in the natural world, some sort of mystical merging of a drop of water into the ocean, and even wrote about the dangers of such a thirst (which he thought entrapped Hart Crane). Yet his feelings of love and joy seldom aroused feelings of gratitude, at least that he decided to write about or sought to help his readers understand and properly adjust themselves to.

On the more general issue, I think that gratitude is an appropriate subject for rational study in an outstanding poem, and further that it is a profound concept that needs deeper understanding and the kind of proper emotional adjustment that a great poet can guide us to. Are there any Wintersian great poems on gratitude? Perhaps there are, and they need to be brought before us. Perhaps Winters’s stoicism hid these poems from him.

William Carlos Williams’s famous and much-discussed “Spring and All” seems close to such a poem (also appended at the end of this entry), though it more directly concerns hope, which is another theme that Winters seemed to think liable to the sentimental and is very seldom touched on in the poems of the Winters Canon or in his own poetry, except by very subtle implication. (I don’t think all that much of “Spring and All” as a work of art, nor do I get much rational understanding or emotional resonance out of it. I will come back to those two specific issues on this blog, in time, for Williams has been on my mind for a long time, since Winters discussed his work often in the early stages of his career and several of his poems made the Winters Canon.) But gratitude is a highly important theme, and there could and should be someone who has written on it with greatness, someone who can tackle it properly, if it hasn’t been done already.

Winters as a poet tended to a stoical position, sometimes to a severe stoicism, as his usual response to the joys of the world and of being alive. He was not given to feelings of thanksgiving, but of inculcating a courageous, austere, resigned resoluteness in the face of the knowledge that life and all human experience must come to an end, that all our joys and sorrows and pleasures and pursuits must end in the utter dissolution of death. You could say that he loved the world so much, that he so badly didn’t want to leave it, that he took the obdurate stance of the stoic toward all his experience, which is a position in philosophy that reaches back to the ancient Greeks. When reading his poetry, it seems to me at times that the thought of losing what he loved so much was outright horrifying. But is not gratitude also rational and acceptable as an emotional stance toward life, if it is guarded from sentimentality? I believe it can be. Comments on this are most welcome.

As I say, I find very little in Winters’s poetry that has any hint that he felt gratitude toward some one or some thing that he was alive and able to perceive the world and think about existence in general and his own existence in particular. The best hint is found in a poem that has been frequently discussed by critics who have taken an interest in Winters’s work, “Simplex Munditiis” (a phrase from Horace meaning, according to R.L. Barth, “plain in neatness”):

The goat nips yellow blossoms
shaken loose from rain -—
with neck extended
lifts a twitching flower
high into wet air. Hard
humility the lot of man
to crouch beside
this creature in the dusk
and hold the mind clear;
to turn the sod,
to face the sod beside his door,
to wound it as his own flesh.
In the spring the blossoms
drown the air with joy
the heart with sorrow.
One must think of this
in quiet. One must
bow his hand and take
with roughened hands
sweet milk at dusk,
the classic gift of earth.

This is a strong, sure, yet minor poem, published late in his time as a free verse imagist, just before he would turn, notoriously, to traditional forms and rational procedures. The poem contains the only mention I know of anything like its recognition that nature and life are gifts that have been given by some one or some thing. There are slight obscurities in the poem that weaken it, in my long-considered judgment, especially in that indeterminate word “classic”. I do not believe it is a great poem, but it is a fine one, as simple as it is. It employs Winters’s free verse technique, based on his complex theory of that once new-fangled metrical scheme, which you can read about in astonishingly great detail in Primitivism and Decadence in the first third of In Defense of Reason. (It’s suggestive to note that though this poem has received a moderate amount of attention from critics and scholars who have written on Winters, Winters himself did not include this poem in his choice of his worthiest work, the 1952 Collected Poems.)

Here’s a short and much more representative passage from another good poem “Moonrise,” which also very subtly implies, before these two stanzas, that the world is a source of joy and a gift:

So we must part
In ruin utterly --
Invades the crumbling heart.

We scarce shall weep
For what no change retrieves.
The moon and leaves
Shift here and there toward sleep.

This recognition, that life will be submerged in death, only hints at an implication that life is worth a great deal to Winters and should be so to us. Why bravely write of this “reality” as he does unless there is also something of great value in reality? Such is what we commonly get instead of gratitude from Winters’s poetry, the implication that the world is dear, but delivered subtly through seeing the sorrow in its loss.

Well, I must stop rather than close. I intended this entry to be short, but one thought has led to another and the result is getting long. There is so much more to say, so many more ideas that are occurring to me as I write, and I am grateful for the chance to say some of it.


I append the two poems discussed:

“The Most of It” - Robert Frost

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush —- and that was all.


“Spring and All” – William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -— a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the rood the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines -—
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches -—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind -—

Now the grass, to-morrow
the stiff curl of wild-carrot leaf
One by one objects are defined --

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
Entrance -- Still, the profound change
has come upon them; rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

Nov 15, 2006

Romanticism Leads to Madness, Reason to Evil?

One last time, I want to come back to Hilton Als’s review in the New Yorker of the handsome new edition of Hart Crane’s poems (and letters) in the Library of America. Als’s review draws attention to the issue of homophobia, suggesting that it played a larger role in Crane’s psychological difficulties than many once believed and that it influenced Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and others among Crane’s critics to some degree in their objections to some aspects of his work and life:

For readers like Tate and Winters, Crane’s suicide was the inevitable, artistically fitting conclusion to a deeply disordered life, and the chief symptom of that disorder was his homosexuality. In Tate’s major essay on Crane’s poetry, what was ostensibly literary criticism now appears as Freud-era homophobic code: Tate speaks of Crane’s “failure to impose his will upon experience,” his “locked-in sensibility [and] insulated egoism.” Winters, still more explicit, regards Crane’s sexuality as comparable to his alcoholism, a “weakness” that he “cultivated on principle.”

This last comment about Winters is accurate, but whether that Winters believed that the “chief symptom” of the disorder in Crane’s life was homosexuality, as Als implies, is questionable (I do not know about Tate, though I’d be interested to hear from my readers on what they might know about him in this matter). In the essay Als quotes from (a passage of “The Significance of the Bridge,” the last essay of In Defense of Reason), Winters does imply that homosexuality is a weakness of like kind to alcoholism. Yet in all my reading in Winters about Crane, including in his letters, I see little evidence that he considered homosexuality in itself to be sinful or evil or some sort of gross aberration. It is possible that his reference to homosexuality as a “weakness” was based on widespread assumptions about what we more recently have called the “homosexual lifestyle” -- that, to put it bluntly (for I see no other way to put it), the homosexual is commonly promiscuous.

I believe that this is most likely what Winters meant in pairing homosexuality and alcoholism in the passage. But whether this small distinction diminishes Winters’s fault or whether Crane’s homosexuality was indeed a significant element in his “dissolution,” which, Winters argues, led to his eventual suicide are matters that I will have to deliberate. Also worth pondering is whether promiscuity of any kind can or should be considered a symptom of dissolution. Addiction to alcohol is commonly considered to be psychologically and spiritually injurious, but Winters’s implied relationship between moral dissipation and Romanticism is certainly little better than tenuous. I note that Als doesn’t make a to-do about Winters’s apparent disapproval of homosexuality, assuming, it appears, that the censure of homosexuality was a matter of course in the 1920s.

On the larger question of the causes of Crane’s general dissoluteness (if his behavior can be characterized as such, which I concede is a wide-open question), it is very clear that Winters thought that Crane’s hyper-Romanticism was the final cause of his dissipation and moral difficulties, manifested in various “symptoms,” and finally bearing bad fruit in his psychic collapse. For Winters, Crane’s story became a singularly decisive test case of Romanticism, as many critics have pointed out recently. Yet is it true as well, as critics lately have been stating regularly and appears true, that mostly as a result of this one stark and massive failure of Romanticism in the life of Hart Crane, Winters damned Romanticism as a whole and extolled Reason? Perhaps putting it that strongly makes the case appear a bit overstated. Winters had many other reasons for opposing Romanticism than its outcomes in the life and death of Hart Crane -- though it is indisputable that Crane’s coming to such a bad end profoundly and decisively burdened Winters’s thinking against Romanticism. He referred to the Crane "test case" over and again, sometimes quite elliptically, in his writings.

But, accepting for the moment that Crane’s suicide can be attributed mostly to Romanticism, is Winters’s case against Romanticism on the grounds of its consequences in the life of this one man, Hart Crane, in itself reasonable? Can we rationally draw any firm, general conclusions about the value or truth of particular Romantic ideas or the general system (which is so diverse as to be almost indefinable) from the purported effects Romantic ideas had in the life of one person? Winters’s argument from Crane against Romanticism in itself constitutes a non sequitor, does it not?

Consider this: if Romanticism as a system of ideas (so wildly varied that calling it a ”system” appears to be nonsense) is damned because of its evil effects in the life of one man (laying aside for the moment the question of whether Crane's blood stains Romanticism’s hands alone), can Reason alike be damned because of its evil consequences in one instance? I ask this because another recent New Yorker book review illustrates an extreme failure of Reason. The review, by Adam Gopnik, concerns two new books about the French Revolution, one a new history specifically of the Reign of Terror and the other a new biography of Maximilian Robespierre, one of the Terror’s architects. This review is still available on line at:

To me, it appears definite, judging from the evidence of the conduct of the Terror by the determinedly reasonable Robespierre, that even Reason can at times go wickedly astray. So what keeps Reason from destruction? That’s a central question for Wintersians. It’s something I will be pondering in the weeks ahead.

Here are the conclusions Gopnik draws about the final works of Robespierre, sobering thoughts for all committed to Reason:

The bloodlust of the time [of the French Revolution] makes the attempt to trace the Terror to any single intellectual source, or peculiar circumstance -— to Enlightenment rationalism gone mad, or to the paranoia of the encircled Republicans -— feel inadequate to the Terror’s essential nature, which was that it didn’t matter what the ideology was. The argument that a taste for the ideal and the tabula rasa leads to terror, after all, would be more convincing if its opposite —- a desire for an organic, authentic, traditional society -— didn’t lead to terror, too. The Red Terror led to a White Terror; Robespierre’s head had hardly fallen before the Gilded Youth were attacking the now helpless Jacobins. It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romanticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the first Terror is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.

To sum up Yvor Winters's ideas on a complex issue very simply, Winters enjoined a balance between Reason and emotion in works of literary art and in life, with Reason standing in control of the emotions. Late in his career, especially in his final work Forms of Discovery, he even carefully laid out the good Romanticism has done for literature, particularly in giving us examples and models by which to perceive the world more clearly and fully. Yet the dangers of Reason is a matter we must ponder carefully as we study the critical ideas of Yvor Winters and his case against Romanticism.

Nov 9, 2006

Literary Structure: Mix up the Lines and What Do You Get?

In a recent interview with Brit writer John Humphrys (the article is entitled “We will soon be lost for words”) in the Telegraph (UK) regarding Humphrys’s new book on language (which laments the death of social decorum and the humorous dumbing-down of classic texts), there came up a suggestive little story about modern art:

Whether or not we still have a firm grasp on the meaning of the word art was a question raised recently by the sculptor David Hensel. He made a piece, called “One Day Closer to Paradise,” of a human head frozen in laughter and balancing precariously on a slate plinth. He submitted it to the Royal Academy for its 2006 exhibition, but somehow the head and the plinth were separated in transit. Nonetheless, the academy accepted his submission and displayed it. The strange thing was, though, that they thought the plinth was the work of art, not the head, which was nowhere to be seen. As he put it ruefully: "I've seen the funny side but I've also seen the philosophical side."
Ain’t that just like so much modern art, poetry and novels inclusive? It doesn’t seem strange to me that the curators of the exhibit were confused, if confusion correctly describes their mental state. Rather, their decision seems almost inevitable in the modern age of haphazard art (which may be characterized as what the poet Joan Houlihan who writes for Boston Comment calls “post-avant, spat-up-by-a-spam-filter poems”). This story reflects a similar complaint that Winters made about modern poetry and fiction from time to time, even about older poetry, such as from what he thought of as the breakdown of English verse technique after, roughly, the time of Milton. He cringed over poems that were so written that the poets could put their elements in just about any order and come up with pretty much the same thing. Of course, Winters excoriated Ezra Pound repeatedly for a similar structural principle, which Winters called that of association, or, earlier in his career, qualitative progression.

One of Winters’s examples of this sort of structural failure or defect, an affair nowadays almost entirely forgotten, concerns a mix up in a famous Henry James novel, which Winters discussed in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature”, originally published in the Hudson Review in 1951. The problem was the transposition of two chapters of James’s The Ambassadors, which a student of Winters’s had discovered and wrote about (I heard from this fellow via email recently, by the by). Because of the “diffuseness and obscurity of the prose”, as Winters described James’s writing in that late novel, the transposition was not discovered for many years and the error repeated in a number of editions of the novel, which, so it is said, James considered his finest work. Winters concludes his consideration of the matter with an incisive summary of what the case of this unintended and long unnoticed transposition reveals: “[The] point [is] that the error should not have occurred, that, once it had occurred, it should have been not so hard to detect, and, if it was so hard to detect, that there was a flaw in the author’s method.” We could distill a rough Wintersian principle from this: if the parts of a work can be put in many different orders then something is seriously wrong.

Much of modern writing, of course, is written much like that head-on-slate sculpture was made, a jumble of impressions, which can usually be put in just about any order or configuration. Parts of modern poems and novels and short stories can almost always be left out or switched around, accidentally or not, without anyone even noticing -- which, I might add, works with Ezra Pound’s Cantos quite well. You can read Pound’s lines or groups of lines in any of dozens of orders. In general, Winters believed that the finest poetry and literature should be structurally sound, in the sense of the New Criticism (with various qualifications that apply to Winters’s criticism alone) -- that not a word could be changed, moved, or cut without some loss or damage to the work. Yet further, in Winters’s mind, the finest works of literature were those structured according to principles of Reason, or "rational progression," as we might call it, as defined and discussed throughout his critical career.

Hey, just for fun, I decided to try mixing up one of Pound’s Cantos, followed by a link to the actual Canto (I’ll admit that I changed a few punctuation marks to keep some kind of sense):

Canto XLIX: For the Seven Lakes

Behind hill the monk's bell
borne on the wind.
Sail passed here in April; may
return in October,
Sun blaze alone on the river;
Boat fades in silver; slowly.

Autumn moon; hills rise about lakes
a blurr above ripples; and through it
sharp long spikes of the cinnamon, against sunset

Evening is like a curtain of cloud.
A cold tune amid reeds,
Where wine flag catches the sunset
Sparse chimneys smoke in the cross light

Comes then snow scur on the river,
Small boat floats like a lanthorn,
And a world is covered with jade
The flowing water closets as with cold. And at San Yin
The reeds are heavy; bent;
they are a people of leisure.


The fourth; the dimension of stillness.
And the power over wild beasts.
Wild geese swoop to the sand-bar,
Clouds gather about the hole of the window and the
bamboos speak as if weeping.
Broad water; geese line out with the autumn
Heavy rain in the twilight, fire from frozen cloud.

Rain; empty river; a voyage,
Rooks clatter over the fishermen's lanthorns,
For the seven lakes, and by no man these verses:
Under the cabin roof was one lantern.

In seventeen hundred came Tsing to these hill lakes.
A light moves on the South sky line,
where the young boys prod stones for shrimp.
A light moves on the north sky line;
Imperial power is? and to us what is it?

State by creating riches should thereby get into debt?
Sun up; worksundown; to rest;
dig well and drink of the water.
This is infamy; this is Geryon.

This canal goes still to TenShi.
Though the old king built it for pleasure,
dig field; eat of the grain.

Here’s where you can read the actual Canto:

In a response to a previous blog entry, a fellow with the blogger handle Shawn R offered some sound insights into why narrative literature is often more readable than poetry nowadays (and throughout the last century or so):

I wonder if literature, by nature, is forced to be less obscurantist because most often it is telling a story that must be intelligible for the reader. Readers of prose are a bit hard nosed in their demand to comprehend the tale. On the other hand, it does seem to me that people in general have accepted the vision of the romantic poet who pours out his self-expression in words and allusions only the poet himself clearly understands.
It is obvious that we have become gradually more accepting of obscurity in poetry to an inordinate degree. There’s an understatement for you! Actually, it has become a common expectation that the poet be obscure. This is a leading reason, I think, poetry has receded so far as an influential form of literature in our time. People just don’t have time to figure out what purpose modern poems have, and if and when they do figure one out, it seldom adds up to much beyond a vague, disordered expression of the poet’s state of mind. That’s usually how I find much contemporary poetry, too, someone who loves poetry. Many of the poets Winters considered great are certainly difficult, but for other reasons than their obscurantist, associative style.

I keep knocking Pound, but he could write some moving lines, as Winters believed as well. Here’s a selection from the Pisan Cantos that is one of the few famous passages from that woolly work and has stayed in my mind a long time:

From Pisan Canto LXXXI

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well
shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is
thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

This fragment from a generally messy Canto is a sweet, comforting sentiment, an exploration of one consolation for the “hellish” aspects of life, though it’s quite sentimental in its way, as well as a bit flabbily and loosely expressed -- and even trades, as is common with Pound, in a few unneeded obscurities and quizzical turns of phrase. It’s not even quite poetry, as I define it, but rather a lyrical, cadenced prose. But this “prosetry” sticks with me, rings true as an expression of a simple human hope. There’s not a whole lot to it, but there’s something. The Canto as a whole is a turgid, insufferably narcissistic, rambling, and aimless meditation on Pound’s ideas about his art (which the passage I have cited apparently refers to in specific), a subject I, frankly, have almost no interest in even if it might be worth the time and effort it could take to figure out what Pound is saying about it.

Compare that snippet from Pound with Robert Bridges’s deeply moving and highly intellectual poem, “The Affliction of Richard,” which contemplates one specific kind of consolation, the solace of religious belief, which has a long, vital, and important history in Western culture. Winters drew our attention to this poem many decades ago, and the poem is part of the Winters Canon (though I judge it to be greater than even Winters allowed). Also, I should pause here to note, John Fraser chose it for his New Book of Verse:

“The Affliction of Richard”

Love not too much. But how,
When thou hast made me such,
And dost thy gifts bestow,
How can I love too much?

Though I must fear to lose,
And drown my joy in care,
With all its thorns I choose
The path of love and prayer.

Though thou, I know not why,
Didst kill my childish trust,
That breach with toil did I
Repair, because I must:

And spite of frighting schemes,
With which the fiends of Hell
Blaspheme thee in my dreams,
So far I have hoped well.

But what the heavenly key,
What marvel in me wrought
Shall quite exculpate thee,
I have no shadow of thought.

What am I that complain?
The love, from which began
My question sad and vain,
Justifies thee to man.

Bridge’s depth of insight and the power of his exploration of the theme is highly meaningful and deeply moving. This poem, to be blunt, has so much more to offer than Pound’s flabby, foggy lines. Bridge’s is a poem to ponder with all one’s faculties for a lifetime, whether one stands in belief or unbelief or doubt. Pound’s lines are a vaguely moving, quickly passing nicety.

Nov 3, 2006

N. Scott Momaday Reviews in the Times

One-time Yvor Winters student and longtime writer of the greatest interest to almost all Wintersians, N. Scott Momaday, has published a review of a new book about Kit Carson in the New York Times Book Review. Momaday himself was featured in the Review's "Up Front" blurb. Mr. Momaday says a couple very interesting things about Yvor Winters. Here's the entire section from the Times:

Up Front

By THE EDITORS Published: October 29, 2006
When N. Scott Momaday was named a Unesco artist for peace in 2004, he was praised for his dedication to “the safeguarding of indigenous cultures.” Momaday, who reviews Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder, refers to the deprivation of American Indians’ land as “the theft of the sacred.” In an e-mail message, he elaborated: “The Indian considers the land to be possessed of spirit, and his identity is bound up in it. ‘Manifest Destiny’ implies that the land can and must be appropriated for the sake of expansion, empire building, profit. It is an enterprise without spirit, and not only Indians have suffered from its unchecked pursuit.”

Momaday, who has been called “the dean of American Indian writers,” said that Indian writing “has come into the mainstream of American letters. I have stated that American literature begins, not with the Puritans in New England, but with an anonymous man or woman incising an image on a canyon wall in Utah 2,000 years ago.” He counts among his influences “the style and rhythms of American Indian oral tradition (given to me first by my father); the example of several writers I admire, among them Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Isak Dinesen and Herman Melville; and Yvor Winters” — the critic was Momaday’s dissertation adviser at Stanford — “who introduced me to several important writers I did not know, and who taught me much of what I know about traditional forms of English poetry. My mother taught me to read and write. I cannot begin to estimate the value of that influence.”

Momaday has ever been wonderfully munificent in his praise for the art and thought of Yvor Winters, which, coming from a writer of such distinction, is alone enough in my estimation to demand that Winters's ideas and work be taken more seriously in literary culture. Among Wintersians, both Momaday's poetry and his fiction are held in nearly the highest regard. I highly recommend House Made of Dawn, a superb novel, and The Way to Rainy Mountain, a lyrical prose chronicle of the Kiowa of innovative form and style yet deep, quiet power. Comparisons of Rainy Mountain with Janet Lewis Winters's The Invasion can yield many insights into the meaning of the experience of Native Americans in American history. For more on Mr. Momaday, search on his name on google. He's well worth looking into. By the way, Lewis's superb Invasion from 1932 remains in print, through Michigan State University Press, the institution where I happen to work nine months of the year. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy before it goes out of print again (I own four copies). Yes, my friends, I hope to talk a great deal about Janet Lewis as this blog trundles on.

Charismatic Professors

Still on-line is a superb review article, "The Nutty Professors," concerning a new book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, by William Clark, an academic historian from both American and European universities. The article, by Anthony Grafton, was published in the 10/23 edition of The New Yorker. This is just a quick note not to miss this article before it goes off-line or you throw away your print copy:

The review is full of interesting anecdotes about superstar professors from the nearly forgotten past and fascinating ideas about the ways and means of what Clark calls academic charisma. I think the whole subject is especially pertinent to the study of the career of Yvor Winters, a professor who had something "nutty" about him, even in the eyes of those who appreciate his art and thought deeply, and who so enjoyed disputation, so suffered the flabbergasted, repulsed scorn of academia, and so gloried in his bullheaded rebelliousness. It appears fairly clear to me that much in this history of the lure of "star" professors has direct bearing on the professor, poet, and man that Yvor Winters would become. I might offer some comments on passages from this article in the near future.